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Against the Tide, The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy and more . . .

After dipping into Against the Tide: The Battle for the American Coast (Columbia, $26.95), you might logically conclude that the biggest crisis facing the country's vast coastal regions is beach erosion. Author Cornelia Dean's arguments can be less than convincing. For example, a beach-munching seawall in Galveston, Texas, may have been among the least of that city’s many troubles following the worst hurricane in U.S. history. Still, Dean, New York Times science editor, manages to make the people, politics and science of pounding surf entertaining and thoroughly thought provoking.

The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy (Cambridge, $27, paper) serves up what its title promises in this neatly edited volume by historian Michael Hoskin. The bulk of the book concentrates on astronomy before the 20th century.

In Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System (Simon & Schuster, $26), science writer Jeffrey Kluger offers engaging stories about the scientists, engineers and administrators at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who designed and managed some of the great unmanned spaceships—the Rangers, Surveyors, Lunar Orbiters, Mariners, Pioneers, Voyagers, Galileo and Cassini-Huygens—that have explored our solar system since the 1960s. Among other things, you’ll learn about the annual "Miss Guided Missile" dance once held at JPL.

John McPhee made the field geologist famous just as the species neared extinction. Richard Fisher is one of the survivors, if emeritus. His story, Out of the Crater: Chronicles of a Volcanologist (Princeton, $24.95), may not be the literary equal of Rising from the Plains, but it offers the same sorts of vicarious delights. Ride the Andes on muleback, lament the loss of friends to volcanic eruptions and learn how a nuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll became the model for the author's seminal research on deadly pyroclastic flows.

Originating as a series of public lectures, Freeman Dyson's The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions (Oxford, $22) is a slim, highly entertaining musing on where science has been and where it might go. Dyson's flair and erudition shine through on every quick-turning page.

In The French Mathematician (Walker, $24.00), Tom Petsinis has created an imaginative fictionalized autobiography of Evariste Galois (1811–32). One reads how the young republican's tumultuous life and mathematical endeavors were inextricably intertwined. The night before the duel that cost him his life, Evariste feverishly concluded his work, which now has applications throughout mathematics and the physical sciences.

Two for Einsteiniacs: Paul Strathern's Einstein and Relativity ($9.95), part of the Anchor Books Big Idea series, describes without equations most of Einstein's research and much about his personal and political life. Banesh Hoffmann's Relativity and its Roots (Dover, $7.95) introduces the key concepts of relative motion. With many diagrams and a few equations, it provides a very readable introduction to relativity.

Another Big Idea book from Strathern presents the ideas and technical expertise of eccentric English mathematician Alan Turing, who contributed much to logic, cryptography and the principles of digital computing. Turing and the Computer ($9.95) is a brief and chatty biography of the life, work and personality of this interesting fellow, as well as an introduction to the history of computing.

Anyone looking for a quick-glance guide to the wildlife, people and geology of the Southwest could do worse than to consult The Redrock Canyon Explorer (Nature Works, $15.95, spiral bound), with words and drawings by Irene Brady that a child can understand and a richness of detail, including an index, that an adult canyon visitor also will appreciate.

Oxford's International Encyclopedia of Science and Technology ($49.95) is a generous, up-to-date, eclectic and balanced compendium, jammed with dynamic color graphics that are as instructive as they are attractive. It is one of the best general science encyclopedias we've seen at the Scientists’ Bookshelf in a long, long time. Two other, specialized references of note: Kluwer's Encyclopedia of Environmental Sciences, at $480 strictly for professional and institutional consumption; and Oklahoma's Encyclopedia of Deserts ($49.95).

New-in-paper picks: Seismosaurus: The Earth Shaker. David D. Gillette (Columbia, $17.95); The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. Paul Hoffman (Hyperion, $12.95); Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rain Forest. Paul Alan Cox (Freeman, $14.95); Farewell Fossil Fuels: Reviewing America's Energy Policy. Sidney Borowitz (Perseus, $19.95).

Nanoviewers: William J. Cannon, David Schoonmaker, Michael Szpir, William Thompson

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